A Family Tragedy: Recognizing Depression Too Late
Kelli Sly's battle with mental illness ended when she killed her child and killed herself.
Nine months ago, Kelli Sly, a 23-year-old single mom with a history of behavioral issues, insurmountable demons and depression, took the life of her 2-year-old son, Gavin, and the next day killed herself.
For Sly's mother, Sherri Sinclair, of Waukee, IA, what happened on March 24 and 25 closed the window on years of anger, frustration and illness and opened a door to unimaginable sadness.
Still, Sinclair chose to tell Sly's story not only because it's cathartic, but because she hopes it might shed light on the difficulties of identifying and treating mental illness.
"She was very unhappy on this Earth," says Sinclair of Sly. "I hate that they’re both gone, but I know why Gavin is with her and I'm glad. I'm not OK that they’re gone, but I’m OK that they’re together."
One of Many
Sly's road to death by suicide was similar to tens of thousands of Americans' every year. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, suicide is the tenth leading cause of death in the country. And The National Institute for Mental Health reports that more than 90% of people who die by suicide have a few risk factors: "depression and other mental disorders, or a substance-abuse disorder."
Sly seemed to suffer from depression, she had abused drugs, and she had a third strike that suicide deaths often have: a prior attempt.
It's not surprising that Sly's apparent depression went undiagnosed: Stanford's Depression Research Clinic reports that "depression commonly remains undiagnosed and untreated."
But every suicide is also unique, and the string of circumstances that isolated Sly -- her husband's deployment, a new child she was scared to lose.
A Lifetime of Strife
When it comes to talking about her daughter, Sinclair doesn't hide the strains of their relationship.
"She was a sweet little girl, but we had a very volatile relationship," Sinclair says. "People think I'm a crappy parent for saying that, but Kelli had problems. She wasn't easy to live with."
Sinclair says she started to notice a change in Sly shortly after she and Sly's father, Bob, divorced in 2001, when Sly was 12. Her daughter was moody, defensive and quick to lash out at others.
"There was a lot of turmoil with Kelli," Sinclair recalls. "She was always so angry - angry at her brother and I, angry that her dad wasn't around. I know she loved us, but everything with Kelli was complicated."
Sinclair says she took Sly to a therapist to deal with what she thought were problems stemming from the divorce. She was medicated but undiagnosed, a problem Sinclair says she never fully understood until Sly was gone.
"I thought she was just angry and I chalked a lot of that up to the issues she had with her dad," says Sinclair. "No one ever sat us down and said, 'She's clinically depressed.' I felt so stupid after she died. I took her to counseling all those years and she never got any better."
Five months after starting college, Sly tried to take her own life by mixing vodka and the prescription pain medicine Oxycontin.
"I found out she was drinking a lot and taking pills," Sinclair says. "That's when I realized she was in a really bad way. They wanted her to do an inpatient treatment program, but she thought she could take care of things herself. Not long after that, Kelli called me drunk and crying and said she wanted to come home. Turns out she hadn't been going to classes.
"She had spun this whole story about how well she was doing."
Raising a Son Alone
Sinclair says if there was one positive to come out of her Sly's short marriage to Tim Sly, a soldier in the Army National Guard, it was her son, born Nov. 9, 2009.
"Maybe this was what Kelli's happiness would be. Maybe her happiness would be being a mom," says Sinclair.
But like most everything else in Sly's life, raising Gavin was a constant struggle. With her husband deployed to Afghanistan, money and childcare woes and Sly herself unable to hold a job, it was just too much for the young mom to handle.
That said, by all accounts, Gavin was doing well. He was happy, healthy and a bit ornery, at times, but what 2-year-old isn't?
"Kelli was a good mom,” Sinclair says. “I never saw anything that made me concerned for Gavin. All the other stuff was just Kelli being Kelli."
But Sinclair says despite reaching out to Sly, she was often denied the right to see Gavin, her only grandchild. That hurt was the hardest to deal with, she says.
A Second Suicide Attempt
In November 2011, Sly tried, unsuccessfully for the second time, to take her own life.
Sly and her husband, who were by then separated, shared custody of Gavin. On that November day, Tim Sly picked Gavin up at Sly's apartment for a weekend visit.
Hours later and with little explanation, Sly slit the veins in her wrists, took a picture of herself with her cell phone and sent it to Tim Sly.
"That was a close call," says Sinclair. "Tim called 911 but it took them a while to find her. It made me realize how close I came to really losing her."
Soon after, Sinclair and her daughter reconciled. Together they made a commitment to rebuild their relationship, but to also work to make things better for Sly and Gavin.
By February, the two were formulating a plan. Sly, who had just enrolled in the paralegal program at a local community college, would move into Sinclair's Waukee home, finish her degree, get a job and buy a house of her own where she and Gavin could make a fresh start.
On paper, the plan seemed perfect.
"What I didn't realize until after she was gone was that she couldn't even see past tomorrow," says Sinclair.
Sly and Gavin's Last Days
On Saturday, March 24, after returning from visiting her mother, Sly called her sobbing.
"She said, 'Mom, I need to talk to you. I don't have any friends. I can't take it anymore'," Sinclair says. "I have no idea what precipitated it."
Sinclair says she told Sly, who appeared fine just hours earlier, that they would get her help. She suggested a local mental health facility but Sly worried they would take Gavin from her if she went there.
"She kept insisting they would take Gavin away from her," says Sinclair. "She was adamant and kept saying, 'They'll take Gavin away and you'll never see him again.' And I remember saying, 'You're not in any shape to take care of yourself, Kelli.' And she said, 'Mom, you're such a piece of (expletive).' And that's the last thing she ever said to me."
Around 3 p.m. that day, Sinclair got a call from Sly's estranged husband. He had also been in contact with Sly and was concerned for her welfare.
"He said, 'You know what? I'm not messing around. I'm calling the police,'" says Sinclair.
Officers were dispatched to Sly's apartment where, according to reports, everything appeared "neat and orderly." When they arrived, Sly was giving Gavin a bath. Officers asked her how she was. She said she was frustrated that her husband wasn't there to help. She was angry, she admitted, but would never hurt herself or Gavin. As if to lighten the mood, Gavin hopped out of the bathtub and ran naked down the hall.
Sinclair said the case was closed when officers found nothing to give them pause to take Sly away.
"I was pissed," says Sinclair. "I couldn't believe that they just stopped by, talked to Kelli and then left. I mean, she left here happy and later she calls and says she wants to kill herself. That's not fine."
The rest of the night, Sinclair's calls and texts to Sly went unanswered until late that evening when Sly forwarded a text message to her mom. It was from Tim Sly. In it, he said he would come pick up Gavin the next morning and that he wanted Sly to go with her mom to get help. Sly said that's not what she wanted. That was the last exchange between Sly and her mom before her death Sunday morning.
Events Spiral Out of Control
No one knows exactly what transpired at Sly's apartment the night before her death.
What is known is that sometime late Saturday, Sly gave her 2-year-old son a large dose of antihistamines, put him to bed, then cut her wrists and laid down next to him to die.
Police reports say an envelope was found on the kitchen counter in Sly's apartment addressed to Tim Sly. It contained a letter, various legal documents, as well as some of Gavin's baby clothes.
Police say the level of medication in Gavin's system suggests his death was deliberate.
It was mid-morning, Sunday, March 25, when Sherri Sinclair got a call from the local sheriff's office. Her daughter, Kelli, had been in a car accident. To what degree she was injured, Sinclair didn't know.
She arrived at the accident site. The scene was horrific. The car, reportedly traveling more than 100 miles per hour on impact, was almost wrapped around the bridge support under a highway bypass.
"The car was crushed; it was totalled," Sinclair recalls. "It was obvious she was gone. No one could have survived that."
Sticking out of the wreckage was a car seat belonging to Sly's son, 2-year-old Gavin.
The toddler was nowhere to be found.
"When I got there, everyone just assumed Gavin was with me," she says. "They were all trying to figure out where he could be. I was thinking, 'She must have left him at home'."
When authorities visited Sly's Indianola home a short time later, they found Gavin lying on a bed, dead from an apparent overdose of medication administered by his mother.
What happened to Sly and Gavin has elicited a range of reactions. In the end, Sinclair wants people to know that, unless you've been there, unless it happened to you, how you feel about it doesn't have much bearing on Sinclair and her family.
"She wasn’t mean, she wasn’t evil, she struggled inside," said Sinclair. "She didn’t do it maliciously. Kelli was a good mom and she loved Gavin very much. It’s easy to pass judgment about what you think you know, but unless you’ve lived it, you don’t know."
How to Get Help
Depression, to whatever degree, can often be confused or overlooked, especially in young people.
Jeff Kerber, clinic administrator for Iowa Health Counseling Centers, says depression is categorized as having five or more symptoms that include sadness, guilt, irritability, loss of energy, loss of interest, changes in sleep, appetite changes and suicidal thoughts.
In an interview earlier this year, Kerber said one thing to keep in mind when trying to assess a person's level of depression is whether they appear different from their usual self.
"The first thing to sort out is how someone's mood differs from their norm," he said. "Maybe they're always in a transient mood, pretty down or frustrated. The critical thing is to what degree is that different from the person’s baseline demeanor. Unfortunately, people get wrapped up in the symptoms and forget about the comparison."
Kerber said depression is both a mental disorder and a chemical one and can be treated through therapy as well as medication. Seeing a physician can be the first step in getting you, or someone you care about, back on the road to better mental health.
Suicidal thoughts, he said, are among the most serious symptoms of depression. He says Sly's decision to take her own life fits a certain suicidal ideation common among those people who suffer from severe, long-term depression.
Kerber said sometimes even the smallest uptick in a person's otherwise cloudy demeanor can be a red flag that something more serious may be taking place beneath the surface.
"It’s really slippery territory," he said. "But that sudden change in mood, that is a red flag. It's the grandfather of all red flags. The fact is, if anyone even gives you a hint, you act as if it’s serious. Period."
Where to Get Help
If you or someone you know is battling mental illness and doesn't know where to go to get help, there are resources available. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is available when you don't know where else to turn. The national hotline at (800) 273-TALK will direct you to local resources so you can get the help you need at home.
Another option is to go to your local hospital. Many have 24-hour access centers where patients can be assessed should they show signs of being suicidal or talk about hurting themselves or others.